I had an opportunity to speak in front of 80ish people at the second Waupaca Story Project and tell a 5-minute story about gathering. I chose to speak about my Sister-in-Arms. Particularly about the 13 of us females in 4th platoon.
I took snippets from my book with the gathering theme embedded throughout. It wasn’t the best presentation I’ve given, but I love my little story. Here are a few photos my husband took.
And here’s my story:
Most of the time the word “gathering” envokes visions of turkey dinners or decorated Christmas trees, of egg hunts or theology, of bonfires and fireworks. Tonight I want to highlight the gathering of my Sisters-in-Arms.
How do traditions begin? How do bonds form? How do 13 motley women, with little in common, become tight as blood? Vulnerability, adversity, and persevering through intense hardships together. Falling and helping each other up. Laughter and joy… and heartache. All of these things forged our never-ending bond.
Our gathering started a few weeks before our deployment kicked off. My platoon of 11 females and 21 males were appointed two new females from―”gasp” Milwaukee―on that February 2003 drill weekend. We encircled Lori and Heather as though they were our prey. We were ready to tear them apart to find their weaknesses. The 11 of us females, who had already formed our bonds and declared each other fit for war, were apprehensive about these newcomers. Were they trustworthy? Were they capable? Were they going to get… us… killed?
It didn’t take long for us to absorb the two foster soldiers. They immediately joined the smoking group and fell right into step. The deployment quickly turned from days to months and our promised six-month deployment ballooned well passed the September date. By Christmas, my company had been ravaged by war. We had acquired purple hearts, broken vehicles, bombed police stations, roadside bombs, grenades thrown at us, gunshots whizzing passed us, and the most oppressive heat on the face of the earth, well at least in my eyes. There were breakups with partners back home, stolen money from fiances, broken hearts, and torn families. There had also been inside joke after inside joke. Best friends and battle buddies became synonymous. On Christmas eve, the girls and I put on our one and only Christmas CD—Destiny’s Child—opened a non-alcoholic bottle of wine, and sat around our three-foot-high Christmas tree with presents from our family and friends piled underneath.
Laughter, smiles, tears, and hugs filled the room while we opened our presents with our new sisters. When the unwrapping was done and the sparkling grape juice was gone, we cuddled together to watch National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. We were each other’s new family and we loved Christmas of 2003 and our rather unorthodox tradition. We were content and happy for the first time in a long time.
I’m often asked how we overcame the constant vigilance, fear, and unease. I answer with this story:
We were pounded by mortars and rockets often and on one particular night, our Captain told us to put on our Kevlar and vests at 2130. I was drained and cranky—sleeping would be impossible with curved plates digging into my back. I jumped out of bed and joined the rest of my platoon. Carlye, who’s always up for a good time, put on some dance music and yelled, “Let’s see your moves, Naylor!”
Since I love a challenge, I shook my hips to Sysco’s “Thong Song.” My gear banged around while I tried to ooze sexy. Laughter filled the room and the other females joined me. The joy in the room lasted even after we got the all-clear. Outkast’s “Ms. Jackson” brought down the house. By the end, everyone had stripped down to PT shorts and sports bras.
It was 2300 before we turned off the music. I hadn’t had that much fun since before our deployment. On other nights, the females and I went to the rooftop and talked and laughed and played on the bongo drums. Some nights we cleaned our weapons and watched Sopranos with our knives, pistols, rifles, machine guns, rocket launchers, and ammo piled high. Our arsenal was on display to emulate and to far exceed the villains on TV. Some nights we swam. Some days we ran and worked out. The fact that we had each other to lean on and cry with made the deployment bearable.
When we finally returned home after being deployed for 16 months―ten months longer than promised. We had a ceremony at the Minor League baseball stadium in Madison. Our commander concluded the event with a declaration stating, “You are released.”
We were free, but my first instinct was not to run to my parents, not to run away from the company formation, but to go to my fellow females, my new family, my lifeblood. We were overtaken by emotion. We stood in a circle and gave each other a bittersweet hug. Our eyes were blurry with tears. We were all trying to talk at the same time.
“I love you guys.”
“I never would have gotten through this without you.”
“What will we do when we don’t see each other?”
“We better have get-togethers often.”
“Damn, I already miss you so much.”
“Let’s email phone numbers to each other right away, OK?”
“One last group hug. Love you all!”
It was the end of our adventure together.
To this day, there are few people that understand my complexities. My sisters-at-war know why I shed tears, the difference between my smiles, they know my happiness based on the glint in my eye. They can comprehend the torment I went through both during and after our deployment. They see through the cracks of my wrinkles and know what caused my premature aging. They know where I’ve been and what I’ve seen. We can cry on each other’s shoulders and not a whisper needs to be spoken because we know. We know that the nightmares, demons, aggression, and anxiety will never end, but the edge softens as time goes by.
We still make it a point to gather. Sometimes war isn’t even brought up, but we know. Our instincts tell us that we are among our chosen. Our beloved. Our kin. We are home.